States Line Up Against Freethinkers & Inaugural Prayer Challenge

Protest Your State Attorney General’s Interference!

The Attorney Generals for each of the 50 states, plus the U.S. Virgin Islands, signed on to an amicus brief last week opposing Michael Newdow, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and other challengers of Christian prayer and a religious oath at the upcoming Presidential Inauguration.

“We regard this as a slap in the face to U.S. citizens who are not religious,” said Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor. She said the entire brief is written with the assumption that God, prayer and religion belong at government ceremonies and all government oaths.

“The uniting of religion and state at an Inauguration is what you would expect in a theocracy, not a country predicated on a godless and secular constitution of ‘We the People,’ ” Gaylor added.

A hearing took place this afternoon in D.C. district court over Newdow’s request for an order to restrain Chief Justice John Roberts from adding the words “So help me, God,” and to restrain the inaugural committee from hosting Christian ministers, including the lightning rod Rev. Rick Warren, to pray at the swearing-in on Tuesday. The judge denied the restraining orders.

“With so much on their plates, the economy in a downward spiral, crime to fight and civil liberties to uphold, it is inconceivable that the highest law enforcement officer of every state found time to sign up to defend religious incursions into government,” Gaylor added.

The attorneys general friend-of-the-court brief was filed only two days after Newdow’s legal complaint was filed on Jan. 5, necessitating that all the attorneys general must have given the matter highest priority.

The impetus was from the Attorney General of Texas, whose state is listed first on the brief.

The attorneys general claim the lawsuit would “threaten” “both clergy-led prayer and oaths invoking God, pursuant to state laws and customs.”

“Millions of good Americans are not religious. We serve in government and the military. We sit on juries and teach in the schools. This is our country, too,” said Foundation co-president Dan Barker.

Gaylor and Barker called the collective brief weak. It highlights, for instance, decisions by the Supreme Court that do not help the cause of the officials. In Marsh v. Chambers, the Court did indeed uphold nondenominational prayer by clergy to open the Nebraska Legislature, as a “tradition” dating practically to its legislative inception.

But as Newdow’s Complaint points out, clergy did not consistently lead prayer at the Inauguration until 1937, more than a century after the nation was founded. Furthermore, the Marsh decision makes it clear it would violate the Constitution for Christian or other sectarian prayer to begin legislative sessions.

Only Christian ministers have led inaugural prayers since 1937. The addition of “so help me, God,” can only reliably be traced as consistently used since 1933, so it also was not a “tradition.”

The brief by the attorneys general also contains a factual error by insisting that George Washington’s inauguration included the addition of the words “So help me, God.” Newdow’s Complaint and other documentation debunks this myth. (Even if Washington had added the wording, the Constitution provides the presidential oath without reference to deity. The Newdow challenge does not name President-Elect Barack Obama or seek to restrain him from adding religious words to the oath, but only seeks to restrain the Chief Justice from embroidering on the constitutional wording.)

The attorneys general complain that if Newdow and fellow freethinkers prevail, it would endanger the religious swearing-in of members of Congress, which, for instance, this year also involved the prayer of Roman Catholic Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, invited by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The attorneys general warn that it could threaten oaths for soldiers, federal judges, court clerks, etc.

“Their ‘parade of horribles’ attending a victory by Newdow and the rest of us freethinkers hardly alarms anyone who understands the constitutional principle of separation between church and state,” commented Barker.

The Foundation has received numerous complaints over the years by nonreligious citizens who have been confronted with religious oaths as jurors, witnesses or even in applying for marriage licenses. The Foundation ended an egregious violation in Mesa County, Colo., in June 2008, after the daughter of one of its Lifetime Members was refused a marriage license by a clerk unless she and her finance said they believed in a god. Some states still have a religious test for public office in their statutes, despite the explicit federal constitutional prohibition and a unanimous decision by the high court in the 1961 Torcaso case invalidating such tests.

The brief is a replay of what attended Newdow’s challenge of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. All 50 state attorneys general then urged the high court to rule against Newdow in that instance. Newdow’s new challenge of the religious pledge in California schools was won in district court, and awaits the ruling, again, of the 9th Circuit, which ruled in Newdow’s favor in 2002. He, a Foundation family in New Hampshire and FFRF are also in federal court challenging the religious pledge in public schools in that state.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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